War Horse began its life as a 1982 children’s book in which Joey, the titular horse, narrated his own story. Then a couple of years ago it was adapted for the stage and became an award-winning success in both London and New York. In the play version, the horses are life-sized puppets that make the audience suspend their disbelief and relate to them as real horses. Neither of those styles would work for the movie version. It would have been a daunting task for any director to film – unless they have the last name of Spielberg.
Thankfully it is Steven Spielberg who has brought War Horse to the screen as part of a one-two holiday punch with the motion-capture version of The Adventures of Tintin. With Spielberg’s mastery of visual storytelling, he can come close to the original book – you see the story through Joey’s eyes.
Joey is born on the moors of Devon, a beautiful chestnut thoroughbred with four white socks and a white diamond on his forehead. Watching his birth is Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), a boy who lives on a neighboring farm with his parents Ted and Rose (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson). When Joey is put up for auction, Ted becomes fascinated with the horse. Rather than getting the Shire horse he needs to plow his fields, Ted enters a bidding war for Joey with his landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis). Albert is delighted when Ted brings Joey home, though the practical Rose worries that they’ll lose everything.
It is a real fear. Lyons comes calling, wondering how Ted can pay the rent after putting all his money into buying Joey. Ted literally bets the farm that Joey will plow a rock-strewn fallow field to increase the harvest. Ted is a bitter, hard man with a lame leg that Albert has a hard time understanding, until Rose reveals he’d served in the Boer War where he won medals that he can’t bear to look at.
It falls to Albert to teach Joey to accept a plow collar. In one of the most thrilling scenes of physical labor ever filmed, on par with the stump scene in Shane, Albert and Joey accomplish the task. But fate has a cruel twist in store for Ted when the crop he’s counted on is ruined. The First World War has just started, and to save the farm Ted sells Joey to Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston). Albert is devastated. When Nichols sees the boy’s distress, he says that rather than buying Joey, he’s just renting him for the duration of the war, but if at all possible he will bring Joey back to Albert when it’s over. But the rule of war has always been that plans only last until you first engage the enemy.
Joey is the major actor in the story. You are with him as he at first competes and then befriends the commander of the cavalry’s black horse, to the point of saving the black when they’re both captured. The scene of drawing an artillery piece up a muddy hill shows the anthropomorphizing power of Spielberg’s camerawork. We meet other characters through Joey: the German soldier Gunther (David Kross) who’s trying to save his 15-year-old brother from combat, the French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) raising his granddaughter Emilie (newcomer Celine Buckens) on a farm behind the German lines, and the horse wrangler Brandt (Ranier Bock) who tries to save Joey and the black.
This is a panoramic story in which short roles are crucial, and the movie is well served by all the actors. While it’s often lost amidst the storytelling, camerawork, and musical score that are highlights of any Spielberg production, the casting of his films is always perfect. This time it was done by Jina Jay, who did 8 movies this year, including Tintin and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Jeremy Irvine had done one television series before being cast as Albert. His role anchors the movie, with the early scenes and when he enlists in the Army to try to find Joey near the end of the war. He makes the bond between Albert and Joey totally believable and heartbreaking.
Spielberg as always is assisted by his longtime collaborators John Williams and Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski beautifully captures the English countryside, the mud-filled horror of No Man’s Land, and references Gone With The Wind with lighting the final scene. Williams’ score is more subtle than the rousing Star Wars theme or the requiem of Saving Private Ryan, but it still tugs at your emotions.
This is not a movie glorifying war. Spielberg had already deconstructed the myth of war movies with the realism of Ryan. Here he pulls back on the violence, letting the actual death and destruction happen off screen. Yet it loses none of its impact. Like movies such as 12 O’Clock High, Pork Chop Hill, and Platoon, War Horse deals with the cost of war on the souls of those engaged in the fight.
Bring plenty of tissues with you when you see this movie. You’ll need them.